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Wow factor is not a design strategy

Wow factor is not a design strategy

I thought we were over this. I really did.  I put it down to the growing pains of adolescence when the web was a teenager in the noughties.  Those of us making a living from website design and development would regularly read briefs from prospective clients telling us the design had to have the “wow factor” and we’d reluctantly take part in beauty parades to win work, hoping that our specific aesthetic temperament exactly matched the arbitrary tastes of the potential client.  This macabre beauty parade was the precise opposite of Miss World – we’re all losers!

The wow factor BS is dangerous for a host of reasons.  Let me list the main ones:

Getting users to feel wow requires you to blow their minds, not show them a pretty interface

Ask yourself the last time that an interface or online experience caused you to feel wow?  I can recall only a handful of times in my life being bowled over by an online experience.  I first saw Skype in the early 00s on a trip to New York, and could barely believe that I could call home for free, or for the price of a local call.  Around a decade later I saw Google Earth for the first time and couldn’t believe how easily I could see the world’s most famous locations, and of course nosey in on the houses of my friends living overseas.  More recently, I got my tiny mind blown when my daughter set up her bank account using only a self–recorded 3–second video as proof of ID before her credit card arrived the next day.  At no stage of any instance was my response connected to the prettiness of the interface.

The wow factor is completely artificial

How does the organisation who has asked their agency for the wow factor determine if they have received it or not?  More often than not it involves a group of senior executives sitting in a well–appointed boardroom, assessing the design for its aesthetic qualities on a state of the art 80–inch flat screen monitor running off the latest hardware and fastest broadband.  In other words, the environment and context within which the design is being assessed could not be further from the environment within which the design needs to work.  The board room is a long way from the real world.  As the punchline of the old joke says, “you can’t get there from here”.

Non–wow interfaces frequently perform better than wow ones

What do you do if you want wow and your users don’t?  This isn’t a hypothetical “how many angels can fit on the head of pinhead” question, rather it is the most commercially important design question you need to face.  Do you not think Bezos would pretty up Amazon if he thought it would help him sell more stuff?  Wouldn’t some animation or lovely graphics (even any graphics) sex up, allowing it to move beyond its current 88.8% customer satisfaction.  Couldn’t Transport for London help facilitate its five million journeys each day by providing more lifestyle shots and aspirational imagery?  Why have the BBC made their site gradually plainer over its 23 years, not fancier?  Could it be that users like beautiful simplicity, confident typography, a focus on content quality, ease of navigation and quick download speed over wow?  Spoiler alert yes.  Yes they do.  Obvious always wins.

The wow effect is short lived

In the 1980s, Professor Noriaki Kano determined a model for understanding customer preferences and behaviours in relation to product design.  He identified five categories by which a product and its feature set could be understood in the context of customer experience, namely must–be, one–dimensional, attractive, indifferent and reverse.  The attractive quality, driven by features which are said to delight, is transient.  Today’s wow is tomorrow’s meh.  Skype may have blown my tiny mind when I first saw it in 2003, but today I have a range of IP audio and video messaging products available to me on multiple platforms, most of which I just take for granted.

The wow factor carries a huge and almost definitely incorrect assumption

UX as a discipline has evolved specifically to help avoid institutional and design biases which hamper design performance, in particular the tendency for organisations to inadvertently design for themselves and not for their users.  A key ingredient in achieving this is investing in understanding the problem before designing the solution.  Understanding the problem involves deeply investing in exploring and articulating organisational objectives and user needs.  We have no right to determine that the user needs or wants wow as part of their online experience without first speaking to them.

A look at the world’s leading digital products across multiple categories would suggest that users don’t go to websites or use apps to be wowed.  They go to get stuff done, find stuff and transact stuff after which they typically want to get on with their lives.

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth formed Fathom in 2011 and has been in the business of design performance for over two decades.

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